Digital media layoffs shouldn't come as a surprise

Site's latest layoffs have brought a clarifying moment to the digital-publishing ecosystem

By Published on .

Credit: Tam Nguyen

The current strain of schadenfreude coursing through the digital-publishing ecosystem regarding BuzzFeed is entirely understandable. Not particularly helpful, but entirely understandable.

In late January, the Wall Street Journal reported that BuzzFeed was cutting 15 percent of its global workforce, resulting in about 250 layoffs—and plenty of anger directed at BuzzFeed's leadership (as well as lots of sympathy for the fired workers). It hasn't helped that, as various outlets have reported, the layoffs were staggered over several days, leaving many staffers in an agonizing state of uncertainty.

The truth, though, is that BuzzFeed has been operating in a vaguely agonizing state of flux for quite a while now.

In fact, in this space on Nov. 13, 2017, I dwelled on BuzzFeed in a column headlined "The Digital Double Standard," about how traditional publishers were having to demonstrate financial and strategic discipline while digital natives were getting a pass. Still, after NBC Universal made a second $200 million investment in the company, one nervous BuzzFeed employee told me, "So I guess I don't have to start looking for another job yet," and another told me the cash had "bought time" and "room for error."

But days after publication, news broke that BuzzFeed would be missing its 2017 revenue target by about 20 percent—and then it laid off around 100 employees.

So why are we just now seeing headlines such as "BuzzFeed's Experimental Era Is Over," from New York Magazine, 14 months after the company's first major layoffs?

Part of it is because founder and CEO Jonah Peretti, whom the media have anointed as an oracle of the future of digital media, has hardly seemed humbled by his company's financial challenges. This past November, he boldly reasserted his new-media alpha status in an interview with The New York Times, suggesting that BuzzFeed could merge with rivals including Vice and Vox Media (i.e., swallow them) to gain a more powerful position vs. the Google­–Facebook duopoly.

The other reason for BuzzFeed's belated reckoning has to do with, well, traditional media's self-loathing. Per the prevailing narrative, if BuzzFeed was triumphing, it was because it had cracked some kind of code—a high-low mix of viral listicles and quizzes and miscellaneous pop-culture coverage, along with some actual reporting—that old-media types were too fusty to have figured out. Sure, BuzzFeed was a content farm, but it was a smarter, better, state-of-the-art, socially optimized content farm—or something.

Except that maybe it wasn't, really. For one thing, when a 15 percent staff reduction adds up to 250-ish positions, you realize that BuzzFeed can relentlessly grind out content in part because it's got so many workers tilling the fields (e.g., Reddit) to harvest clickbait.

Meanwhile, the site's laid-off director of quizzes wrote about how some of BuzzFeed's most viral (and idiotic) content all these years was being created for free by "community users," like one insanely prolific 19-year-old Michigan hobbyist, who has written hundreds of quizzes for the site.

Can we admit already that there's nothing smarter, better or state-of-the-art about taking advantage of "community users" to gin up free lowbrow content? The Huffington Post (which Peretti co-founded) was pulling that nonsense a decade ago.

And let's face it, there's nothing coherent or logical about a website that last week counted these stories among its "Trending": "People Are Sharing the Nicknames They Call Their Pets and It's Relatable AF," "A Mom Allegedly Poured Water On Her Sleeping Baby's Face For Keeping Her Up At Night And Posted It On Facebook" and "This Quiz Will Reveal the Exact Year You Graduated High School."

Animals! Horror! Nostalgia! Click right here, folks!

The thing about budget cuts and layoffs is that they bring a certain clarifying aspect to the proceedings. And sometimes we realize that new-media oracles are actually just repackaged traditionalists who absorbed the lessons of the likes of P.T. Barnum about how to monetize the most reptilian precincts of the human brain.

For awhile, BuzzFeed's torrid, investment-fueled growth seemed like the result of some sort of brilliant new formula. But all of a sudden, everything new seems old again. And, yeah, the laws of gravity still apply.

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